NR: Witch Hunt

Freelance writer Sadie Asquith, the protagonist of Syd Moore’s second novel Witch Hunt, has a lot going on. Her mother has just died after a bout of mental illness, and before passing hinted at some dark secret in Sadie’s past. Mum’s boyfriend Dan has gone off his meds and disappeared. On the plus side she has just managed to find a publisher for her book on the Essex Witch hunts, but even that has a downside in that the publisher is owned by right wing demagogue Robert Cutt. Sadie’s editor Felix though seems like a good egg, and even accompanies her on some of her research trips, helping fill in the background on the self-appointed Witchfinder General Matthew Hopkins. Things take a strange turn, with Sadie experiencing supernatural phenomena, and having visions from the life of Rebecca West, a young girl whose testimony kicked Hopkins’ career into overdrive, leading Sadie into dangerous waters.

This book was inspired by the research Moore did into the Essex witch trials for her previous book The Drowning Pool (reviewed here), and the horror of that time when any woman could be accused of witchcraft, tortured, and then put to death simply because she didn’t sink in the river, comes over really strongly. Both Moore and her character Sadie put a political spin on things, revealing how so much of the witch craze was about keeping women in their place and acquiring property through putting them to death on these flimsy pretexts. The anger at this injustice, felt both by Sadie and by inference Moore herself, burns off the page and is shared by the reader. Moore also does solid work in making the idea of a connection between Hopkins and the Salem Witch Trials sound entirely plausible. Modern witch hunts and abuses of power are touched on in the plot strand involving media mogul Robert Cutt and his lust for power, all of which make him seem like a modern day version of Hopkins. The supernatural elements add yet another dimension, with a wealth of effects that make us more willing to accept the reality of what is happening to Sadie. There are moments that raise hair on the back of the neck and make us both fear for the character and at the same time doubt her sanity. Yet for all that the witches are real, if only as spectres of things lost to the fire, the evil at the heart of this book is that of ordinary human beings, the sins of greed and ambition, lust and envy, in the past and the present.

I liked the characters, especially Sadie, who felt fully rounded, a young woman with ambitions and principles, ready to risk her career and even her life for the sake of the truth, the chance to right an ancient wrong and win justice for the innocent. The way in which the plot evolves, with each step following on surely from the previous one so that it forms a smoothly oiled and well running machine, was a strength of the book. There were a few things that gave me pause, such as the plot strand involving Dan, the missing boyfriend of Sadie’s mother, which felt wholly contrived and pushing credibility, with no real purpose to it other than to add another complication, and the heavy handed way in which one major plot point was foreshadowed was off putting. Minor points though, and overall I was impressed with this book, even more so than with The Drowning Pool. Never less than readable, it succeeds eminently as entertainment in the horror mode, but has an extra dimension that adds gravitas by virtue of the light it throws on a dark period of our history and the battle of the sexes that was central to that time and its attendant horrors, with just a hint maybe that things haven’t changed as much as they should, as much as we might wish.

It’s the season of the witch.

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